Petty: The Biography
Bruce Springsteen was once quoted as saying, “You don’t break up your band.” If you have a band, you keep it together no matter what the cost might be. Warren Zanes’ biography of Tom Petty, Petty: The Biography, is the story of a band that did just that, and survived in some form for over 40 years now.
A band is a family, a tribe, an outlaw gang, or some combination of the three, not the same thing at the same time. A rock and roll band is messy and difficult and awful sometimes, and there are very real casualties. Warren Zanes captures all of it, thanks to a subject that didn’t want the story to be whitewashed (although anyone who’s sat through the four hours of the Peter Bogdanovitch documentary probably already knows that). This book is brutal. But it is essential reading, and easy to read.
The Heartbreakers are one of the great American rock and roll bands, and they were (and are) Tom Petty’s band. Period. That’s not stated as a matter of ego but rather a matter of describing the dynamic of this thing we know as a rock and roll band. Petty had to make difficult decisions along the way, and they are recounted in unvarnished fashion, everything from deciding the money wasn’t going to be a five-way split, to band personnel decisions, to how Petty handled (or didn’t handle) his own personal life because he put the band (and the songs) first. Always.
This book tells the stories you want to hear and digs into the truths you wanted to know about: Stan Lynch gets his moment in the spotlight and has his say about his role in the band, and about being kicked out of the band. The sadness of the loss of Howie Epstein was an unavoidable topic. And yes, there are truths about the relationship between Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, but probably not the one you might have been hoping to hear (they are ride or die for each other, and Stevie would have tossed Fleetwood Mac in the gutter if she could have joined the Heartbreakers, but (sadly) the grand romance did not happen.) It tells the story of the Traveling Wilburys (which could be its own book), of the tour with Dylan, of the making of great record after great record. It makes you understand Jeff Lynne, and appreciate him more. You want to hear the record Southern Accents was supposed to be.
You also learn things you didn’t know about, like the Heartbreakers losing “The Boys of Summer” because Tom broke his hand out of frustration in the studio, and never got to hear it, so Mike Campbell took it to Don Henley, who (knowing a great song when he heard it) recorded and rush-released it. Or the story of Jimmy Iovine digging for more material during the recording of Damn The Torpedoes, hearing “Don’t Do Me Like That” in a reject pile that Petty was trying to sell to other artists. Apparently Iovine just asked for a copy of the tape, drove straight to Petty’s house, and said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? What do you mean it sounds like J. Geils?” And you learn about Petty’s addiction to, and withdrawal from, heroin. (There’s a lot of cocaine in the book, but that’s not surprising given the 80s.)
It’s also the story of a world that doesn’t exist, of the way people used to make records, of a structure of a music business that will soon be in the history books only. There are bad contracts and lawsuits and asshole record company executives. But it doesn’t dominate the book, so if you don’t care, and just want to know if Stevie Nicks and Petty got it on, don’t worry, it’s woven into the rest of the story so seamlessly it won’t bother you. But hearing MCA head honcho Al Teller complain about the Heartbreakers not playing “the single” on SNL (“the single” being “I Won’t Back Down,” which Petty rejected in favor of “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and “Free Fallin’,” you know, those obscure b-sides.)
There is a lot to dig through in the story of Tom Petty, and the story of the Heartbreakers. It is not a 600+ page tome like, say, Shakey, but it is a very dense story, with economical writing that manages to pack everything in. There will be stories you do not know. There will be stories you don’t want to know, not because they’re boring, but because they are insanely painful. You’ll stop reading the book at points just because you need a break emotionally.
This is a great book, not just a great book about Tom Petty. It’s an insanely well-written book, with a voice that allows the author to be narrator and have a point of view, but not one that dominates, the story isn’t about him. But the writing is beautiful and lyrical at times. It’s also a well-researched book, by someone who knew how to construct a linear story out of what was essentially tons of detritus, hours of interviews, research, videos, audio, you name it. There is an art to be able to pick through it and find the connecting points and then string them together in a way that serves the story and helps guide the reader through it. Zanes is a musician and an academic, and it would do us all good if there were more people like that writing books about rock and roll.